Friday, September 1, 2017

Community Energy: aspirations and limits

Generating and using energy locally makes a lot of sense. It avoids transmission loses and can enable direct ownership and control by local users and/or community groups.  The UK  Coalition Government’s Community Energy Strategy in 2014, as updated in 2015, aimed to aid the growth of community energy, with, in 2016, the Urban Community Energy Fund offering £200,000 in grants and £1m in loans, while community energy groups were offered a tax advantaged under Social Investment Tax Relief. However, take up has been hit by wider policy changes, and registrations in 2016 fell to just 10.
That doesn’t mean there’s any lack of grass root activity. ‘Thousands of community groups across the UK are developing practical, positive examples of the zero carbon transition, ranging from waste food caf├ęs to community energy schemes. While many of these community-scale projects are small, they empower and connect people, help expand the political choices available, give people a sense of agency and help normalise sustainable behaviours. The role of intermediary organisations that connect and support grassroots projects is very important in helping to scale up and replicate ideas’. So says the Centre for Alternative Technology in it latest update on achieving ‘Zero Carbon Britain’.
It puts a lot of stress of behavioural change. That is clearly important, but it has to eventually add up to significant material change. A conference on energy change options in Milton Keynes in February heard about some of the excellent local initiatives backed by Community Energy England, but they reported that the total capacity installed so far was only 188MW. Small compared to what is needed but a start. And maybe size doesn’t always matter: at this stage it’s more about community engagement, which can lay the basis for more things later. At least 30,000 people have invested in local projects so far, via 222 community energy groups across the UK- 186 of them being Community Benefit schemes- a form of co-op. Over 100 projects used PV solar.
The situation is better though in Scotland, where the devolved governments 2020 target of 500MW of local projects has already been met. And it’s all very different in Germany where prosumers and energy co-ops are near to dominating the 100GW green energy market. But that may change as FiT support is cut. Though the cultural changes won’t go away: so maybe building on that is part of the way ahead.
Certainly the potential for local generation is large. A report produced last year by CE Delft for green NGOs says that 19% of EU electricity could be produced, with the right investment, by 2030, by ‘energy citizens’, rising to 45% by 2050. Many more households, organisations and small enterprises could produce their own energy, supply demand-side flexibility or store energy in times of oversupply. It says this isn’t limited to individuals, but can include farmers, community groups, small business, and co-operatives. CE Delft Report and Excel files: 
Clearly, community energy is well developed in parts of the EU, with 34% of renewable supply in Germany coming from community schemes, and in Denmark 70-80% of wind turbines were community owned in 2013- though that’s been falling due to support cuts and buy outs. It was much harder in the UK, given even lower financial support levels, but, in a UK-relaying of the Delf report, it was noted that in all , including Scotland,  there were 5000 UK community energy groups, and that community schemes create 12-13 times the community value than privately owned schemes. So they were important to back. It suggested the UK could get 44% of its electricity from them by 2050. A big stretch from now, but a good target! Source: The UK Blue and Green coverage of the FoE/Greenpeace/EREF/RESCoop backed study:
Community projects also make sense elsewhere in the world, in developing countries in particular. Foreign aid programmes can help, as with the UN backed Scaling Up Renewable Energy Project, if properly administered. Though the Telegraph doesn’t like this sort of thing!
Ethiopia, one of the poorest nations in the world, has been one of the recipients of climate related aid which has included support for a wind project. And, although not all of this will be community based (there are some large hydro projects), interestingly, Ethiopia has now usurped Egypt and South Africa as Africa’s largest source of renewables capacity, with total renewable energy capacity in the country jumping from 2,307MW in 2015 to 4,188 MW in 2016, more than 10% of the continents total generation capacity of 38GW. Edies noted that is it is ‘now gearing up to become the wind power capital of Africa, with its second Growth and Transformation Plan, a five-year strategy to reduce poverty and spur national development – pursuing an increase of wind energy output from 324MW in 2015 to more than 17GW by 2020’
The risk with development programmes is that they will involve ‘top down’ mega schemes, requiring large external funding sources, and leading to major local impacts but little local participation or benefit.  By contrasts, smaller scale low impact renewable projects, for example using solar or wind energy, can be locally owned and controlled are are much less likely to be opposed. Indeed, they are likely to welcomed and promoted locally, hopefully then providing bases for local enterprises and local economic and employment gains. That fits in well with the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All programme, which aims to increase access to energy, renewables especially, at the local level, in Africa and elsewhere.
Localisation, whether led via communities or local municipal authorities, can certainly work. That is a lesson learnt from the EU experience with local ownership and local council   energy projects, in Germany especially, and is also now being demonstrated in the USA, with local energy co-op and municipal projects catching on- and, as in Germany, challenging the utilities: And also see:
Back in the UK, there are some good local community projects and networks, and some support from the government and OFGEM: And also, crucially, from local councils: But there is still a way to go to rival Germany and Denmark!

*The European Federation of Renewable Energy Cooperatives represents 1,240 initiatives and 650, 000 citizens. Its members have jointly invested €2 bn in 1GW of renewable energy projects, with a combined annual turnover of up to € 950m: